The UK government narrowly avoided a backbench rebellion over foreign aid on Monday, after the Speaker of the House of Commons refused an amendment that could have forced ministers to reinstate the budget for overseas spending after it was cut by almost a third last year.
Over the weekend, more than 30 Conservative backbenchers including former prime minister Theresa May pledged to support an amendment to the Advanced Research and Invention Agency bill led by former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell.
The amendment could have forced the government to reinstate spending 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product on foreign aid from 2022, by enabling the new agency to make up the estimated £4bn cut by the Treasury.
But in the House of Commons on Monday, Sir Lindsay Hoyle told MPs that upon taking legal advice from the Office of Speaker’s Counsel, he regarded the amendment to be “outside the scope” of the bill and as a result it would not be voted on within parliament.
However, Hoyle said the issue of foreign aid needed to be “debated and aired” within the Commons.
“I hope the government will take up that challenge and give this house its due respect that it deserves; we are the elected members; this house should be taken seriously and the government should be accountable here,” he said.
Deputy speaker Nigel Evans confirmed on Monday evening that the issue of foreign aid will be debated in the House of Commons on Tuesday. “The debate will be held at the commencement of public business tomorrow and will last up to three hours,” Evans told MPs.
Despite promising to maintain aid spending at 0.7 per cent of GDP in the 2019 Conservative election manifesto, in November 2020 the government announced that spending on overseas aid would be cut to 0.5 per cent, reducing the budget from about £14.5bn in 2020 to about £10bn in 2021.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who announced the change last year, justified the cuts by the “unprecedented” economic impact of the pandemic, saying the UK remained the “second highest aid donor in the G7” and would return to 0.7 per cent spending as soon as the “fiscal situation” allowed.
Leading charities, academics and political figures have since warned that the cuts could cause unprecedented disruption within the most poorest countries and jeopardise the UK’s standing internationally.
Tory MPs have ramped up pressure on the government to reverse the cuts ahead of the G7 summit in Cornwall this week.
Mitchell accused the government of treating the House of Commons with “disrespect”, adding that if a vote had been secured on the amendment, the government would have been defeated by “at least” nine votes and as many as 20.
The former aid secretary said the decision to cut overseas aid spending would “indisputably” result in “hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths” across the world.
Tobias Ellwood, chair of the defence select committee, warned that the foreign aid cut could undermine the UK’s reputation and create a “vacuum” of leadership on the global stage.
Ellwood, who backed the amendment, argued that in light of its leadership of the G7 the UK should “step forward”. “The wider picture is that hard and soft power are two sides of the same coin,” he told the Financial Times.
Preet Kaur Gill, Labour’s shadow international development secretary, said: “A failure to reverse the cuts would entirely undermine our ability to solve global challenges, from the pandemic to the climate crisis.”